Future Tense

The Story Behind Trump’s Claim That Twitter Is Shadow-Banning Conservatives

A phone with the Twitter logo on the screen.
Conservatives have accused Twitter of “shadow banning” their accounts. Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump used Twitter to criticize … Twitter. “Twitter ‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints,” he wrote.

“Shadow banning” refers to social media companies’ practice of making users’ posts visible only to themselves, without banning them outright from the platform. The tactic has been used by Reddit and other social media sites to manage users who violate the platform rules.

The recent kerfuffle over shadow banning came about after Twitter implemented a new strategy to fight “troll-like behaviors.” The company wrote in a May blog post that it was making some changes to its search bar: “People contributing to the healthy conversation will be more visible in conversations and search.”

But it seems to have had an unintentional effect. Gizmodo reported on Sunday that some far-right figures—such as Jason Kessler, who organized the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and far-right blogger Mike Cernovich—had been “buried” by Twitter’s search feature. (As HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg pointed out Wednesday, the approach had also affected the accounts of left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House and its co-host Will Menaker.)

Then, on Wednesday, Vice published a story under the headline “Twitter Is ‘Shadow Banning’ Prominent Republicans Like the RNC Chair and Trump Jr.’s Spokesman.” It said that Twitter’s new strategy to make trolls less visible was accidentally ensnaring some Republican politicians, making it harder to find them in the search bar by not autofilling their account names. Vice reported that the affected accounts included those of Reps. Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, and Matt Gaetz; Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel; and Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesman Andrew Surabian.

Twitter appears to have fixed the search problem, as product lead Kayvon Beykpour said it would on Wednesday. When I typed the names of Matt Gaetz, Ronna McDaniel, and others mentioned in Vice’s report into the search box, their accounts immediately appeared in the dropdown menu.

Furthermore, the problem is not exactly shadow banning, because the accounts are still visible to users and still appear when users search them. As New York magazine’s Select All explained Wednesday, “ ‘Shadow banning,’ as generally imagined and described by the activists who claim they’ve been affect [sic], would actively suppress user content even to followers, not just make accounts one click more difficult to find.” Moreover, a Twitter spokesperson told NBC News, “As we have said before, we do not ‘shadowban.’ ” As that statement suggests, this isn’t the first time this has come up for the company.

For instance, conservative media outlets attacked Twitter in January, after James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas released secretly recorded videos of Twitter employees discussing the platform’s content moderation and political culture, and claimed the videos were evidence of a conspiracy to suppress conservative speech through shadow banning. But the videos were taken out of context, Ars Technica reported.

Pro-Trump bloggers Lynette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson have also accused Facebook and other social media sites of shadow-banning them, as they discussed at an April 26 House Judiciary Committee hearing on the “filtering practices of social media platforms.” Their written testimony said:

Facebook along with other social media sites have taken aggressive actions to silence conservative voices such as ourselves by deliberately restricting and weaponizing our page with algorithms that censored and suppress our free speech. These bias algorithms are tactics designed to pick up on keywords, thus telling the pages how to behave in ways that repress and stifles expressed ideas including Shadow banning, which blocked our content from being seen by our followers while depriving our brand through the demonetization of our videos. Followers stop receiving notifications when we posted videos & content. Followers were also mysteriously unliked from our page.

The committee held another “filtering practices” hearing last week, with conservative lawmakers grilling representatives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Some GOP lawmakers appear to be relishing the fight, using it as grist on the campaign trail. House speaker hopeful Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has run ads on Facebook railing against the alleged suppression of conservative voices on social media.

But there isn’t very strong evidence that Twitter is biased against conservatives—it may be that the technology isn’t very good, New York Law School professor Ari Ezra Waldman testified at the House Judiciary Committee in April.